LERIBE-Today marks exactly 14 months since four Khethisa High School students perished and 16 others were badly injured when a minibus taxi they were travelling in was involved in a horrific accident.
The tragedy plunged the district into a state of mourning and many in Leribe remember that dark day as if the crash happened yesterday.
The year’s festive season could not have started on a worse note for Lesotho, hence government, and various stakeholders, are determined to ensure such a catastrophe does not befall the nation again.
On Monday, Transport and Public Works Minister Tšoeu Mokeretla was in Maputsoe, Leribe district, to officially launch this year’s Christmas Road Safety Campaign under the theme ‘High Speed Kills’.
The theme is ominous as it is appropriate to highlight the major cause of traffic accidents, which the minister and fellow dignitaries who spoke at Monday’s launch reiterated.
“My ministry saw it fit to stand up and make you aware of the importance of saving lives, which is why we are launching this campaign today. There is nothing as important as fulfilling the will of God by saving lives,” said Mr Mokeretla.
Seen by many as a menace on the roads, taxis have indeed contributed their fair share of accidents, with Minister Mokeretla pointing out that speeding is at the heart of these crashes.
“As a taxi-operator myself, who has been hiding for many years, I strongly feel it is important for us to stop competing on who is the best driver by speeding, which usually results in accidents. Instead, we should compete to transport lives safely to their destinations. With everyone’s support, accident-free roads are possible,” Mr Mokeretla said.
He further urged all public transporters to ensure their vehicles are roadworthy not only during the festive season but throughout the year to reduce the risk of accidents.
The ministry’s Director of Road Safety, ‘Mabokang Mathews, reiterated the minister’s statement, adding: “This ministry was established in 2004 to push for the decrease of road accidents and campaigns like this have been held annually since that year.
“The purpose of today’s event is to educate the nation on how best people can work together to decrease road accidents, which continue to cost the country so many lives.
“These countrywide educational campaigns will target children, taxi-operators, chiefs and every road-user to make their safety their own responsibility.
“Today’s event marks the beginning of countrywide police roadblocks that we hope will result in zero accidents on our highways.”
However, Leribe School Children In-Transit Association president, Sello Maphalla, said lack of legislation governing the transportation of students to and from school was contributing to the disorder in the industry. Mr Maphalla appeared to remind delegates of last year’s tragedy, which remains a tragic reminder of what the festive season can and almost always brings to unsuspecting families.
“Our association was established after we realised that every person capable of owning and driving a car can decide to transport children to and from school,” Mr Maphalla said.
“That is the challenge facing this industry; there is lack of clear legislation governing the sector and clearly defining what should be happening, in addition to which permit one should acquire.”
Mr Maphalla urged the minister to urgently look into this issue to save the industry from unscrupulous operators.
“We want to make sure these children are safe but other road-users make this harder for us as they speed and overtake without a care in the world,” Mr Maphalla said.
Bochabela Transport Operational Regional president Limema Phohlo pledged his members’ support in making an accident-free festive season a reality.
“We have a stake in Road Safety Campaigns as we detest accidents as operators, which is why we first start by checking our vehicles before ferrying passengers to ensure they are roadworthy. Whoever does otherwise, we report them to the police ourselves,” Mr Phohlo said.
Mr Phohlo also urged government to provide the district with good roads and a taxi-rank, which he said would go a long way in reducing accidents.
Mr Phohlo also complained about senior government officials and police officers who “abuse” their positions to muscle their way into the public transport industry.
“Their vehicles don’t seem to be governed by the same road legislation which is applied to us, and this causes problems in this industry. The other problem is that licences are only issued in Maseru.
“This presents our people with challenges because they have to go all the way to Maseru and sometimes camp overnight outside the Transport Ministry offices for the licenses. I would like to urge government to bring this facility and other critical services closer to the people.”
Mr Phohlo also said failure to implement the cross-border taxi agreement with South Africa had resulted in “many problems” for Basotho operators each time they ferry passengers across the border.
“People are killed right in the middle of the border due to car accidents which could have been avoided with better controls or criminals who camp there to rob and kill them,” he said.
“Facilitating smooth cross-border operations for taxi-operators will also guarantee the safety of passengers. We will make sure they are dropped where our security guards would take care of them but we need the support of our government for this to be possible.”
Mr Phohlo further condemned the police who demand bribes from taxi-operators instead of fining them on the spot should they break the law.
On his part, Acting Traffic Commissioner, Motsoale Lesupi, called on members of the public to strive for accident-free roads not only during the festive period but throughout the year.
“We should set a target where we will not only decrease accidents but work towards a zero road-accident situation.
“But for this to happen, we all have to start by changing our attitudes,” he said.
“I call upon motorists, as well as pedestrians, to be cautions when using our roads. Drivers should stop speeding and adhere to the stipulated speed limit.”
Assistant Commissioner of Police, North Region, Tšeliso Moerane, challenged the operators to blow the whistle on officers who demand money from them in exchange for being “forgiven” for a traffic offence.
He also announced that all officers would be on duty this festive season.
“The police cannot go on leave at this time of the year; this is to make sure officers can be seen everywhere throughout the country and the people are safe,” he said.
“The police will be conducting stop-and-search operations whose purpose is to ensure safe travel on the road and that vehicles are roadworthy.
“Stop bribing the police; talk to your drivers to stop bribing the police. Spot fines are there and the police know exactly when to issue those fines.
“You must also have serious discussions with your drivers on speeding if we are to achieve our zero road-accidents goal.”
PANEL THIS PART WITH A CRASHED CAR PICS
Study tears into public transport
Poorly maintained vehicles, speeding, poor driving skills, texting and drunk-driving have been cited among the major causes of road accidents in Lesotho.
This is according to the Lesotho 2015 Crime and Safety Report produced by the Overseas Security Advisory Council.
“Many vehicles are not roadworthy, and not all drivers are properly trained. The average speed limit inside cities is 50 kilometres an hour and outside cities and towns is 80 kilometre per hour, but not all vehicles drive at this speed,” reads the report.
Poorly lit roads, roads in a state of disrepair and inexperienced or irresponsible drivers often under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance have also been highlighted as contributing to the road carnage.
“Insobriety is a significant contributing factor to many accidents, particularly in the evening, at weekends, and month-end.
“Drivers frequently change lanes into oncoming traffic without looking and expect others to take evasive maneuvers to compensate,” the report further notes.
The study further indicates that while it is illegal to use a cellphone while driving in Lesotho, many drivers do so “to the detriment of their attention and driving ability”.
The report has also highlighted how taxis are not the safest mode of transport in Lesotho.
“They are not safe means of transport within Lesotho. Every year, there are a number of serious and fatal accidents involving public transport.
“Many lack proper safety equipment such as seatbelts and headlights. The drivers are often reckless, making frequent, unauthorised stops to pick up passengers and speeding from one stop to the next,” the report further says.